Former UFC athlete and now PFL featherweight Aspen Ladd is just 28, but has already been fighting for a decade.
The reminder of that anniversary — it arrives on March 15, as her first amateur fight came on that date in 2013 — caught Ladd by surprise, leading her to address just how far she’s come in a recent interview with Cageside Press.
“I hadn’t even thought about it like that. I debuted as an ammy two weeks after I turned 18. As soon as I had my birthday, it was like ‘I want to fight right now!'” she recalled. “Looking back, time just flies. All the experiences I’ve had were mostly positive, and then the other ones were ‘well, it was an experience.'”
Those experiences took her all the way to the UFC, and now the Professional Fighters League, where she has the chance to earn a million dollars — the type of money that didn’t seem possible for all but a few lucky, high-profile fighters a decade ago.
“I’ve had such an extraordinary life because of this sport, and I’m only 10 years into it. Ten years, like, obviously training before that,” Ladd continued. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve had highs and lows, but at this point I couldn’t be happier with where I am, especially with the PFL. It’s like a new season for me in life, in my career, and everything is so positive, it’s awesome. I’ve got a fight, I’m just excited about the fight, I’m not worried about anything else. So it’s been an extraordinary ride so far and I’m looking forward to next year, and the year after that, just evolving.”
Ladd actually made her promotional debut for the PFL last year, winning a decision against former Bellator MMA champ Julia Budd.
“I’m glad that I already have one PFL fight under my belt — I understand basically how they work,” Ladd explained, noting that the promotion was “super-similar” to the UFC in some senses. “It’s just nice having that experience to see exactly what to expect.”
“They have a very similar structure. The only difference is, the PFL, sure you have your obligations, but they’re less militant about it. It’s like ‘alright, we’re going to get it done,’ and you have to get it done obviously, but it’s just more of a chill vibe, which I like.”
Ahead of her, Ladd has Olena Kolesnyk waiting at PFL 2. It’s a match-up she wasn’t entirely surprised by. “It actually occurred me that she might be the person I get [first] for the tournament, but we didn’t know who else was going to be in it besides the obvious, like Julia and the winner from last year [Larissa Pacheco],” said Ladd. “So when I got her I wasn’t shocked. Just looking at her, she’s a heavy-handed southpaw striker, and that’s basically all she wants to do.”
The PFL’s season format puts special emphasis on finishes, as its points system rewards fighters who end bouts early with a better ranking overall, especially important in the playoffs. On that front, Ladd explained that “I’m always, in every fight, looking for the finish.”
“You’re always striving to get it, but I think if you hyper-focus on it too much, it’d probably have a negative effect on the fight,” she continued. “This is obviously the first time I’ve done the tournament format and had points that were up or down depending on at what point you finish the fight, but I’m going to try to not hyper-focus on that. Obviously I’m going to go out and strive for the finish, but I don’t want it to be this thing where it has to be like ‘right now!’ Nah. I’m just going to go out and organically get to it.”
Ladd has also talked to her teammates about changing things up in training with the tournament format in mind. “You can’t do as much of that hard-type sparring, and you’ve got to be more careful with other live rounds I think. Every time I’ve been hurt, and every time for the majority of fighters who get hurt, it’s during training. You get hurt during the build-up to a fight. So when you have that many back-to-back, trying to stay healthy is going to be a balancing act, knowing when to push and when to lay off a little bit.”
This being Ladd’s first tournament, she plans on tweaking things as she goes. But overall, the Aspen Ladd you’re seeing these days is a healthier, happier fighter. After years of struggling to make bantamweight, she’s finally fighting full time in a division where she isn’t battling the scale.
“It was just too much, and I knew it years ago,” she said of her time as a bantamweight. “And I was trying to go up, and it just didn’t work out with the UFC.”
With the UFC not building their featherweight division, the option was never truly there for her in that promotion. It is in the PFL, who are introducing the weight class this year.
The serious side effects of grueling weight cuts began adding up, and took Ladd to the point where her thinking became “‘I’m still young, and I want to be healthy, and I want to live to be an old lady. So we’re going up regardless.’ I ended up where I am now, and I couldn’t be happier. It feels good to feel good again.”
Watch our full interview with PFL featherweight Aspen Ladd above. Ladd returns at PFL 2 on April 2, 2022 in Las Vegas, NV, where she faces Olena Kolesnyk.